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New Standards for Functional Safety Gain Acceptance

Safety expert Heinz Gall of TÜV Rheinland discusses how new standards for the use of computer-controlled safety systems deliver a higher level of safety, reliability and quality.

Heinz Gall of T?V Rheinland.
Heinz Gall of T?V Rheinland.
The basic Functional Safety standard, along with new sector-specific standards, have gained widespread acceptance; the adoption of these standards clears the way for computer controls to be used for functional safety systems. Instead of a chain of wires connecting electromechanical switches, sophisticated computer controls can now be used in functional safety systems. Computer controls provide up-to-the-second data that reduce downtime, catch problems before they occur, and improve overall employee safety.

Today, the basic Functional Safety standard IEC 61508 (“Functional Safety of Electrical / Electronic / Programmable Electronic Safety Related Systems”) and the sector-specific standards, such as IEC 61511 for the process industry and IEC 62061 / EN/ ISO 13849 for machinery applications, are accepted practice in many countries and industries. For the first time, end users and system integrators have standards that are accepted worldwide to guide them throughout the safety life cycle of their facilities. For manufacturers, the standards, especially IEC 61508, provide a guideline for the design of safety-related equipment.

“The adaptation of computer-controlled safety systems represents a major technological leap forward,” says Heinz Gall, head of business sector automation, software, and information technology at TÜV Industrie Service GmbH, a subsidiary company of the TÜV Rheinland Group, headquartered in Cologne, Germany, one of the world’s leading providers of compliance testing and certification services. “The use of electrical and electronic equipment in safety applications delivers a high level of safety, reliability and quality, and allows companies to better monitor processes. The advantages offered by real-time monitoring enable computer-controlled safety systems to increase productivity by allowing companies to catch problems before they force a work stoppage or, in a worse-case scenario, cause injuries.”

Setting a Standard

In the past, most safety applications in the U.S. required hardwired, push-button-type safety stops. For example, if an assembly line encountered a problem, a button was pushed and the line was shut down for safety inspection. If a sensor detected a problem, it might also trigger a shutdown and then the line needed to be inspected to determine the cause of the problem. Downtime could last minutes or days, depending on the severity of the problem. However, this type of situation rarely occurs with a computer-controlled functional safety system.
“Computer-controlled systems provide companies on-going diagnostic data on safety systems so employees can monitor machines and see where problems are developing,” says Gall. “In many cases, they can correct problems while the system remains on line. If the company already has data in hand before shutting the machine down, the amount of time that a machine needs to be down is reduced to minutes. The new computer-controlled systems give companies better insight into how their equipment is operating and that data gives them the power to be more productive and have a safer workplace.”

According to Gall, a number of industries can benefit from computer- controlled safety systems. For instance, any industry that depends on safety systems, such as the chemical industry, oil and gas companies, or nuclear power generators, can benefit from safety automation technology. Gall also envisions the adoption of computer-controlled safety systems in furnaces, power stations, elevators, radio controlled hoists and locomotives. “Anywhere safety is a concern, computer-controlled systems can provide better levels of security compared to traditional electromechanical systems,” says Gall.

As companies look to replace older safety systems, notes Gall, they need to understand how computer-controlled systems can be used and how they can be designed to integrate into a company’s existing structures and procedures. “Each application of a computer-controlled safety system is different, and part of our job is to work with manufacturers, system integrators and end users to help them understand how to build these systems, implement them and use them,” he says. “We work closely with end-user companies to guide them through the process so that they can enjoy the fullest benefit from a computer-controlled system. In the same vein, we work with manufacturers to make sure that their products are built to existing specifications.”

With all the new computer-based safety systems can offer, companies will see a major benefit by upgrading from older electromechanical systems. In today’s competitive environment, companies need to be operating efficiently 24/7, and computer-controlled safety systems give companies the flexibility and insight into their machinery to help keep existing systems on line and employees healthy.

“Just like an upgrade from a typewriter to a computer, the adoption of computer-controlled functional safety systems is a revolution in safety and productivity for businesses,” says Gall. “The ability to run more diagnostics and catch maintenance issues before they snowball into major problems makes a company run more reliably. Electromechanical safety components can’t match the amount of data and flexibility offered by computer-controlled safety systems. Now that these types of systems can be used in the United States, we’ll start seeing companies switch to this type of technology to help improve efficiency and profitability and keep their employees safer.”
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